by Furry Girl

05.07.12

It's weird to occasionally hear people tell me I'm a great activist, or that I've written lots of helpful stuff about activism.  It's weird because I generally don't identify as an activist at all, I don't feel like I have it all figured out, and have a long and problematic relationship to the concept of "activism."  I will say that I am better than most activist-identified people at gaming out ideas and considering how well something is likely work in the long run, but that has not proven an in-demand skill in activist social scenes that thrive on the cult of "doing something," whatever that something is, whether or not it's effective at all.  I believe that most activist-identified people are sorely lacking in both historical understandings of social change and the critical thinking skills required for really focusing only on the most strategic actions.  Recently, someone asked me on Twitter what advice I'd have for new activists or people interested in getting involved in activism.

I openly admit it: I generally hate activists, activist subculture, and everything that is typically associated with activism.  (All three of those external links should be considered required reading on the topic.)  Anyone who is not themselves a part of the problem knows that activism is absolutely fucking insufferable, as it attracts many of the worst, dumbest, most mentally unstable people in the world - who all want to imagine themselves as heroes and saviors.  So, not only are you battling for a political issue, but you're faced with a double burden of having to do so while dealing with activists themselves, like trying to run a marathon through a swamp.  Because activism "has to" be inclusive, it welcomes everyone with open arms, despite whether or not they ever do anything objectively useful: the people who love wielding power by blocking consensus processes and causing constant infighting in a group, the over-the-top PC hysterics whose "contribution" to "activism" is lecturing everyone around them about why they are not enlightened enough, the people who derail every simple task into an exploration of ephemeral philosophical issues like "the need to examine gender roles," the people who have self-righteous fits about the need to "get out there and do something!" without ever stopping to think if that something is really going to help anything (or even make things worse), the people who only seem to drop by when there's a photo-op or something important happening, lifestyle protesters who drift around and latch onto any random cause without putting effort into understanding it, the larger groups that take public credit for the work of small grassroots groups, the people for whom "activism" is a mere performance to achieve status among their educated lefty friends, the people who steal funds from projects because they feel entitled to a little unofficial stipend here and there... I could go on and on.

I say this as someone for whom activism is not my social scene.  I realize it's a different experience for people who, for reasons I have never understood, actually enjoy spending their time with activist-identified people.  People can and do build their lives and families in activist cliques.  Sure, I've made some genuine friends via activism, but we'll always be the two people snickering in the back of the room while other people do their best performances of being "heroes."

Activists are so fucking awful.  It needs to be acknowledged more often.

This is where my important lesson comes in, because if you read my blog, you probably agree with a good bit of what I've written so far.

The most important lesson I could ever impart about activism is to remember that it's not about activists.  It's about your cause.  Never confuse the two, because they couldn't be more different from one another.

I realize that sounds like a no-brainer, but it's something I have struggled with for more than ten years, and something I've seen the best people also battle.  I've gotten in fights with more activist-identified assholes and fame-seekers in more scenes in more cities than I can count, and there are so many times where my mind wants to jump to, "fuck you people, fuck this cause, I hope you all fall into a giant blender" and just leave them to keep going about their ego-boosting ineffectual nonsense.

I've gotten better at finding my own way, interacting only with small and select groups of people, and focusing my time on the things that I think will do the most for a cause, not for the "cause" of social status in activist cliques.  Taking this sanity-preserving path means I generally work alone or in pairs, but the extra workload has always been more than balanced out by not needing to haul around dead weight.  I hope that more people will take the same route (especially new folk who could be entirely spared the horrors of the activist subculture), and work on small, non-"inclusive" projects, where there is a narrow focus, a clearly stated mission and goal, no time wasted on debating the "true" meanings of abstract philosophical concepts, and above all, an emphasis on always putting the cause above activism.





14 Comments

  1. Here, here. This post may bring some of the "occupy" crowd out of the woodwork to troll/flame though. The irony being that if they actually took this advice to heart and implemented it, it would have a positive effect on their cause.

    I know you've written about this before, but I think it deserves a repeat mention: a great deal of real, effective activism is just plain tough and/or monotonous work. Like stuffing 1000's of envelopes. Or getting (borrowing) enough money to mail that many letters. I could go on but the bottom line is nowadays that type of effort is probably more likely to get the results than throwing stuff at riot police.

    The "I hope you all fall into a giant blender" line made me snort out loud. by the way. Nicely done. :)

    Comment by matthew f. — May 7, 2012 @ 1:51 pm

  2. Damn straight, girl. Right on the money, as usual.

    Comment by Maggie McNeill — May 7, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

  3. Any time we talk about 'activism' or social movements I have to put up a rec for True Believer by Eric Hoffer. Dated, but still important. I would also mention Pippa Norris' Democratic Phoenix for a more modern, international take on things.

    Comment by Kristin Guttormsen — May 7, 2012 @ 5:59 pm

  4. You seem to have defined activists and activism in a very narrow way - the pseudo-revolutionary ex-hippy movement of the professionally dropped-out.

    But there are plenty of other versions of activism - anyone who actively promotes a political cause is an activist; anyone from the college kids that went out and put leaflets through doors for Obama in 2008 all the way up to all but two Presidents*.

    The mob on the internet that endless hammers any political discussion that mentions Ron Paul into the ground - they are activists (a remarkably ineffective version) too.

    Think tanks and PACs and issue-based campaigning is just as much a form of activism as that kind of pseudo-revolutionary stuff. That may well be what people are meaning when they call you a good activist. It certainly is what I think of when I call you one.

    * Washington and Eisenhower

    Comment by Richard Gadsden — May 8, 2012 @ 12:02 pm

  5. An excellent post with which I have been in hearty agreement since 2003. Thanks also for the "required reading" links, the first of which is some of the most important reading I've recently done.

    Have you ever happened across this early Matt Taibbi piece?
    http://www.alternet.org/module/printversion/19840
    It's sadly still quite relevant in the OWS age.

    This is my first acquaintance with your site and I look forward to further perusals.

    Comment by Rob T. — May 8, 2012 @ 11:39 pm

  6. Matthew: The giant blender image has long been popular in my mental library. I agree that most good activism is boring and tedious work. Everyone would love to be the person interviewed on TV, no one wants to stuff envelopes or write letters to local businesses asking for donations. I've always gravitated towards the "boring" stuff as a deliberate means of trying to offset people who are only up for the exciting stuff.

    Kristin: Thanks for the book suggestion.

    Richard: I repeatedly use the term "activist-identified" to refer to the sorts of people I am talking about. Nowhere did I say that everyone who has any job related to social change is evil or inept.

    Rob T: Nope, I hadn't read that, but I did just now. Thanks for sharing, and I agree. I really love Bookchin's piece that I linked to (also available in small book form, I think from AK Press), because it's so snarky ("The Bey") as well as being a great indictment of lifestyle/faux-situationist type "activism."

    Comment by Furry Girl — May 10, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

  7. This was increibly useful. Thank you.

    Comment by Sven — May 13, 2012 @ 2:38 pm

  8. Activist is a term, like feminist, where one's identification with the word (or vehement opposition to it) says very little about that person's politics or personality. I'd much rather that passionate, progressive, and even-tempered people continue to identify with these words and "take them back" from the crazies and fundamentalists instead of throwing up their hands and declaring that they no longer support the politics of these IDs because they've been overrun by idiots.

    Comment by Allison — May 16, 2012 @ 12:59 pm

  9. Allison: You've already identified the issue: "they've been overrun by idiots." Why stay and polish brass on the Titanic?

    Comment by Furry Girl — May 16, 2012 @ 2:37 pm

  10. You say it's the Titanic, I think it's more akin to America. After W was elected, and then reelected, the seething masses screamed they were moving to Canada. I think there's something worth fighting for in America, just as there is in the label of feminist and activist.

    Identities have value, and while I'm not going to be so callous as to suggest that people "should" stay in any identity, I think pointing out the many shades of feminism and activism help add nuance to the larger discussion. Newt may say all feminists are one thing, but my identification with the word feminist, just like Dworkin's, Carter's, or Michael Moore's, all prove him wrong.

    Comment by Allison — May 19, 2012 @ 4:27 pm

  11. Allison: The only prize for winning that gigantic messy argument (which I believe is endless anyway) is that you would "get" to call yourself a feminist. Which, to me, is a really shitty prize that I no longer care to compete to win. It was an important epiphany for me to realize, years ago, that I didn't actually *want* the prize I was fighting so hard to win, nor was that prize of any use to me.

    Comment by Furry Girl — May 19, 2012 @ 4:33 pm

  12. Excellent piece. activism sucks. it's a smug game where the most enlightened gets to be the winner. I've always known it sucks and yet here I am -a fucking activist. I don't know how it got like this but I've become everything I've always hated and seem to have lost my mind and gone backwards in the process. If I could give just one piece of advice it would be to do your own thing and just work alone or in pairs as Feminisnt advises.

    Deep down I know this piece is all entirely correct. activism is a hopeless waste of time that eats away at your time and eventually your brain. there are plenty of good well meaning people involved but it all turns to shit in the end.

    Stay away from it- From someone who knows.

    Comment by Jaded burnt out feminist — May 24, 2012 @ 5:06 am

  13. Jaded: I hear you. I've met some wonderful, compassion, brilliant people in activism, but I'm also met the scum of the universe. It's so hard to press on and try to accomplish things in spite of the latter.

    Comment by Furry Girl — May 24, 2012 @ 4:53 pm

  14. Comment by Trackbacks — February 18, 2019 @ 3:00 am

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